Sunday, January 18, 2009

Reasons Mormons Stand Alone

There has been talk that 2008 was a bad year for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its image. To many it was a self-inflicted image because of the political stands it took and history. True as that may be, Mormonism has almost never had good press coverage or widespread respect. Perhaps the closet to a good reputation was during the era between 1950 and the first years of the 1960s when the forced Americanization of Mormonism coincided with wide spread U.S. patriotism and conservative spirit. That window of time was short lived and perhaps illusory. Radical social and political liberalization quickly took over. What remained was the LDS Church standing in the crosshairs of a culture war. It was left again where it started in the 18th Century. The conservative religious considered Mormonism a blasphemy and secularists an affront to human progress and logic.

The conservative antagonists to Mormonism are often religious theocrats who see anyone with different beliefs than themselves as doomed to eternal punishment. Christians are not alone in this view. To deviate from dogma is a worse sin than moral failings. Mormons are seen as the enemy because no matter how good a person is, the differences are too much for any respect. For many Christians, Mormonism's questioning of dogmatism and focus on works as an important aspect of spirituality is despicable. Faith in the correct beliefs are of the utmost importance. To believe anything more or less than exact dogma is to be evil.

Having a belief in Priesthood that governs and leads, rather than simply informs is another thorn in many Christian's sides. Similar to secularists, Protestants question authority and reject it except as a loose influence. Interesting enough, for years Catholics were kept out of the political process by Protestant gatekeepers for many of the same reasons. An overwhelming number of Catholics have forced a grudging respect on the Republican conservative Protestant base. It remains an uneasy reliance. Regardless of what chances Romney might have lost because of a dislike for Mormons, it is just as unlikely a Catholic could become a Republican U.S. Presidential contender. Nevertheless, the numbers and a respectable balance of traditional Christian dogma that Protestants inherited gives them an equal amount of room to ostracize Mormons.

Liberals are no less problematic for Mormons because they hold different metaphysical views about G-d and religion. Strict secularists hold even less similarities. Morals are seen as universals based on human relations rather than any set of doctrinal justifications. There is no right and wrong other than treating others with respect and social justices as they define the terms. Since there is no authority (other than a tolerant G-d by the liberal religious) then science and logic become the ultimate determiners of Truth. For the secularist liberal what cannot be proven in physical life must be rejected. Mormonism posits that truth and moral ism is more than what can be proved, but is centered on faith and Church authority. Often the only difference between the conservative religious criticisms of Mormonism and the secularists is tradition and a Holy book.

Strangely, since both conservative religious and Western liberalism both believe morals and authority are of secondary considerations, both view Mormonism as "cultic." It is an anti-papist sentiment shared by Christian and Secularist alike aimed at anyone who proclaims they have divine authority. This is exacerbated by the Mormon history of continual revelation, visions, miracles, new Scripture and Prophets. All of these have been rationally rejected as a sign of delusion. The religious say G-d no longer speaks words openly and the secularist that there never was a divine voice. To paraphrase one secularist, Mormonism doesn't allow for easy metaphorical re-interpretation. The foundational doctrinal history and Scriptures are too grounded in literalism. A culture built around the idea "G-d is dead" or at least silent is scandalized by one that continues to insist prophets exist that can declare "That He lives."

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Books on Mormonism to Start the Year

A while ago I had written a review at about a book on Mormonism that I still find relevant. The book is by a non-Mormon who seems to get it right where others go wrong, even Jan Shipps who is more of an historian. Its price is the most problematic at $30 new and hard to find in any stores or libraries. The other book I am including is a great companion to the first and by a wonderful Mormon scholar. Neither of these are new, but are great reads for those who are interested in learning more about the religion.

An Introduction to Mormonism by Douglas J. Davies.

This is a wonderful book if you are into understanding the more difficult basics of LDS doctrine. Because of its complicated interpretive structure, I have a hard time calling it an introduction. He writes as a University Professor and it shows. Certainly it is the best book on the subject written by a non-Mormon, without clinging to esoterica and other people's misconceptions that usually hurt even the best books on the subject. Even the most celebrated non-Mormon authority Jan Shipps can be too skeptical and careless rather than understanding. This author, however, stays mostly with the authoritative works first, and the others second when needing clarification.

The touch tone of any treatment of Mormonism is how they approach the LDS Temple. I was very surprised and excited that the author rejected sensationalism and expose. He actually talked about the meaning behind the Temple and other related subjects. It is a far cry better than any other similar studies outside the LDS Church. I would recommend reading By the Hand of Mormon by Terryl L. Givens with this book. Both are a compliment to each other.

I would like to mention what I see as a weaknesses in his study. One of the reasons I recommended Givens is that Davies misunderstands the Book of Mormon. Perhaps that is going too far as he does have a pretty good sense of its general message. Rather, Davies doesn't understand the deeper teachings within the Book of Mormon, much less the anticipatory sections that touch on things that will show up later in the Doctrine and Covenants. He reads the Book of Mormon, sadly much like LDS members themselves, from a purely surface reading. That causes him to miss the many subtle and complicated issues it brings up, and dilutes the connections between it and later LDS Scripture. For instance, Davies doesn't sense the deeply ritualistic and priesthood oriented teachings of the Book of Mormon that continually shows up. Examples would be talking about the importance of mysteries, discussions on Melchezidek, mentioning of Priests and Teachers and Twelve Disciples, setting up Churches. Most importantly he misses the discussion of "turning the hearts of the children to the parents" in Third Nephi that Davies makes a big connection with ritual in other chapters of his study. There are other minor quibbles, but they are far less worrisome than what other authors even of the same caliber usually have.

The other book is by an author just mentioned. He doesn't delve into the deep waters of theological exegesis or complicated matters, but what he covers is a worthwhile overview. Again, the main concern is that the purchase prices is too high and a library copy should be sufficient.

The Latter-day Saint Experience in America by Terryl L. Givens.

There isn't as much to say about this book because it doesn't seek to explore any particular arguments. It starts out as a clear narrative of LDS history that covers some controversial events from the Mormon point of view. Yet, it doesn't act as a apologetic so much as clearly trying to present the Mormon understanding of themselves. The history sections alone would be informative to both Mormons and non-Mormons in ways that general writings of one or the other seem to come short.

The second section is more theological and covers the main beliefs. Again, there isn't any deep discussions and yet the information is full of enlightening insights. He sometimes explains misunderstandings that boarder on apologetic, but only when he feels outsiders have misinterpreted key doctrines. His harshest criticism is for those who perpetuate the idea that Mormons hold Christ's Salvation and Grace as of secondary importance. It is clear he holds orthodox beliefs about the LDS Church and its doctrines. That might turn off those who insist on holding their own ideas about Mormons in a negative light. For those honestly wanting to understand the religion, this book is a good start. It is succinct, leaning unbiased for most audiences, and covers a wide range of topics and controversies.